A tiger ideally needs 54 sq km of territory, eating about five kg of meat a day. The density of tigers in Kaziranga National Park and Jim Corbett National Park is around 32.64 tigers per 100 sq km and 19.6 tigers per 100 sq km respectively. Forest fragmentation and encroachments have left our tiger population at genetic risk, cutting off corridors for tiger migration. Very dense forests in India now comprise just 2.54 per cent of our geographical area, with moderately dense forests adding an additional 9.7 per cent. Total forest cover comprises 21.23 per cent, the vast majority of it classified as open forest (any land with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent) — a nebulous category which can contain tea gardens, fruit orchards, commercial plantations or your backyard.
Reverence for the forest is inherently Indian. Historically, the forest was never far away from habitation; travelling from one town to another meant going through a forest. Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang of the 7th century AD writes of forests close to Kausambi, Kapilavastu and Kusinagara in Terai and north Bihar. Whether as abodes for exile, as in the Ramayan, or renunciation, the forests, as Dandakaranya or Khandava, have held great sway.
Deforestation too has its roots in history. The Khandava forest was burnt by the Pandavas to establish Indraprastha. Emperor Jahangir states that until the age of 50, 28,532 head of game had been taken in his presence of which 17,167 animals were killed by him with his “gun or otherwise”. Colonial policies, focused on increasing revenue from timber exports and infrastructure development, led to large-scale deforestation across India.
Post-1960, the rate of deforestation decreased. And during 1980-2010, following government policies to protect forests in India (Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and National Forest Policy, 1952), afforestation occurred in several patches in India. The National Forest Policy of India, 1952, targeted one-third of the total forestland, for securing ecological stability (Forest Survey of India, 1999). The National Forest Policy of 1988, targeted 33 per cent of forest cover in plains and 66 per cent in forest cover in hilly and mountainous areas in order to prevent erosion and ecosystem degradation. However, implementation lagged severely.
Between 1880 and 2013, 26 million hectares of forest land and 20 million hectares of grasslands/shrublands were lost. Between 2011 and 2013 alone, India lost a 1,991 sq km of moderately dense forests; they degraded into open forests. Today, an average of 135 hectares of forest land is given over for power, mining and other development projects a day.
India has 172 species (2.9 per cent of the world’s total number) of animals that are considered to be globally threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The conversion of reserve forests, with meaningful protection, into sanctuaries and tiger parks needs to be accelerated. In southern India, 65 per cent of wildlife corridors are under the protected area network and/or under reserve forests. Over 90 per cent of the corridors in central India are jointly under forest, agriculture and settlements.
Anti-national elements routinely partake of the wildlife trade — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ivory and sandalwood) in Sathyamangalam, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (shahtoosh and snow leopard pelts), Dawood Ibrahim in Bihar (katha trade), armed Maoist insurgents in north Telangana (tiger bone trade), etc. Our internal security depends on inadequate budgets allocated to anti-poaching, wildlife crime and forest protection.
The elephant’s distribution in India is now a shattered regime. About 25,000-28,000 wild elephants remain (50 per cent of the world’s Asian elephant population) across 26 elephant reserves that are spread over 110,000 sq km. They are connected through narrow one km long strips of land. Across India, only 22.8 per cent corridors are without any major settlements. Central India’s vast forests have increasingly been fragmented into pockets in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Formalised wildlife corridors, connecting our wildlife sanctuaries with others and reserve forests remains critical to their future. As does creating underpasses and avoiding the routing of highways, dams and river interlinking through forested areas.
Environmental governance institutions contain significant weaknesses, as is evident from the state of pollution control boards and wildlife trusts. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has insufficient coordination with State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), given double subordination and the administrative influence of the state government. Other constraints, like political interference, lack of civil administrative authority (particularly when imposing fines), ineffective accountability, lack of stakeholder awareness, high levels of corruption and inadequate monitoring skills remain prevalent.
The use of fiscal instruments in environmental policy has been limited in India. Water cess rates, under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, were last revised in 2003, and remain quite low compared to the economic value of water. A 25 per cent rebate on the cess payable by industries hampers collections even more. Instruments such as consent fees, under the water and air acts, have not been revised for some time and are instead being used for funding, while sewerage and air quality management systems languish.
With India on an ambitious growth path, the debate between environment and development has intensified. On one hand India’s environmental policy seems stuck between a clamour for faster clearances for infrastructure projects and a bureaucratic maze, while on the other there’s demand for “fast-tracking” projects with “special procedures” that could become a route to eliminating public hearings, gram sabha approval and diminishing rehabilitation/resettlement work. For example, proposals to mine coal from Greater Tadoba landscape in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, could erode Vidarbha’s water security, kill wildlife tourism and magnify human-animal conflicts.
The cycle of destruction is nearly complete. The forest department has promoted forest destruction by selling off timber and approving open-cast coal mining. The resulting firewood shortage and consequential soil erosion is keeping the productivity of Indian agricultural lands low. Croplands have expanded on to marginal lands and have reduced grazing lands. With unemployment and landlessness growing, even pro-forest tribal groups are looking to monetise forestry resources. Avoiding all this will take dramatic effort.